“Can you run?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” she said, prodding and testing her ankle. She stood up and took a few halting steps, winced and fell back to the ground.
“It’s okay,” he said. Eiko looked around the stone courtyard. Vines trailed over the heavy white slabs and grasses popped up out of cracks in the flooring, but nowhere did he see what he was looking for: a branch, a stick, something that might be used as a cane or crutch. “Come on,” he said. He draped her arm over his shoulder and stood slowly, lifting her up with him. “Let’s go.”
The pair moved warily through the ancient and desiccated remains of the once great city of Ueto. They walked the King’s Corridor, though they did not know to call it by that name. The King, and all his sons, had been dead for an age. The Kingdom, too, was gone, replaced at the time by warring nations that had long ago devolved into warring tribes. The City of Kings was a relic, a dead place inhabited by ghosts, forsaken by all living men as a place of fear and dread, an empty hallowed ground, a graveyard filled with uncounted and unnamed tombs. Eiko and Nisa, clinging to the boy’s shoulder, drove on past vacant windows, abandoned sentry turrets, and decaying barricades. Long forgotten towers loomed up intermittently along the road, casting great shadows that reached out from the distant past to obscure the day’s hot sun as it rose higher and higher. As thirst grew in the two young walkers they were unaware that the great dike that ran to their left had once been a canal. It had carried water through all of the city in the days of the King’s reign. Dust and wind were all that flowed through it now. It was a dark abyss amid the white stones of the city, a lurking fear for Eiko and Nisa as they walked alongside it. But Eiko held them on the road and the road followed the empty canal. It led somewhere. Out of the city, he hoped. There was no better alternative. They walked on.
At midday Eiko stopped. He was drenched in sweat and breathing heavily. The sun had been beating on their faces all morning. “Let’s sit for a moment,” he said. He guided Nisa to a patch of shade beneath a stone awning overhung with tangled green vines. They shared sparing sips from Eiko’s waterskin. In the light of the noon sun, the city gleamed white. Spots of green sprouted up wherever vines and lichen and grass had been able to take root.
“Thank you,” she said. She looked into his face, but he continued to stare out at the white city. “Thank you for helping me. You didn’t have to. I – I don’t know why you did.”
Eiko’s eyes squinted at the brightness all around them. Almost imperceptibly he shook his head. “I helped you because help should be given where it is needed,” he said. “Because we’re not like them.”
Nisa flexed her ankle and felt a twinge of pain run up through her leg and stab its way into her brain. “I can walk some of the way on my own,” she said. “You’ll wear yourself out carrying me.”
“No,” he said. “I won’t. But we should get going. Come on.” Again, he draped Nisa’s arm over his shoulder and lifted her. She did her best to help him with the walking but her ankle was hurt and he was, despite being thin and light himself, strong.
When the sun was sinking, its amber light tinting all of the stone city with a red hue, Eiko stopped them once more. This time they rested upon a dusty stone battlement, the remnants of a fountain that had run dry long, long ago. They climbed inside, its walls peering up over them, protecting them from the dead eyes of the dead city.
Eiko looked westward. Black shapes, like great and terrible birds, moved in the sky. He rubbed his eyes and they were gone. He leaned back against the white stone rampart and was surprised to feel that it was cold against his skin. A cool breeze blew out of the east. For the first time that day Eiko was cold. He rubbed his arms with his hands to bring warmth into them, to get his blood moving again.
“How did we get here?” Nisa asked. “How did you get here? Do you remember any of it?” Her hands picked at corners of stone, where the heavy slabs had been fitted neatly together with a craftsmanship that had died years before. Her eyes stared past the stones to something more substantial but entirely out of reach.
“I don’t,” he said. “I don’t remember. I don’t know.”
He put his arm around her and pulled her close. They stayed that way, huddled together for warmth, as the red sun sank over the white city and gave birth to a black night.